Shepherding People with Disabilities
Most pastors want to serve and lead people with disabilities in their congregation. If you don’t believe it, watch them when a new person with a disability comes into their church. What is more, pastors must set the tone for the congregation to follow when it comes to ministering to and with people with disabilities.
Not all pastors know how to serve people with disabilities or lead their congregation in disability ministry. This study aims to help pastors understand disability, correct misunderstandings, and shepherd people with disabilities biblically.
Getting a grasp of disability prepares pastors and their churches to be more effective in ministering to people with disabilities. Several points stand out:
God ables and disables people with great variety. Disability is a matter of Degree. We would do well to remember that it is an oversimplification to say that some people are disabled and others are not. It is more accurate for us to view disability in a range of less and more.
Every person has disabling qualities that tend to increase as we age. We will all be disabled some day. So, we are better off viewing people with more severe disabilities as more challenged and re- mind ourselves that disability awaits all of us. There are over one billion people with disabilities on our planet. Roughly speaking, that is one in seven.
God invites us to see the disability glass as half-full. When it comes to disabilities, you can look at the challenges or you can look at the blessings. If the Church is willing, it can benefit greatly from the presence and perspectives of people with disabilities. Several blessings that people with disabilities bring to their local church are worth considering:
First, people with disabilities have unique and valuable insights into human suffering. Because they constantly deal with limitations, discomfort, and pain, they do so better than the rest of us. They learn to live with suffering. Some of us cringe when we get a flu shot! Most people with dis- abilities have endured years of treatments, medications, and medical procedures in addition to emotional suffering such as social rejection. Acclaimed miracle cures have lifted their hopes only to dash them when they fail.
Second, people with disabilities have built-in sensitivity meters. They can spot hurt feelings a mile away. This is significant for churches that desire to love unconditionally better than the un- believing population. Because people with disabilities understand what it means to be mistreated, brushed off, or simply ignored, they also have a heightened awareness of others in need and their feelings. Consequently, they set the bar on matters of sensitivity.
Third, many Christians with disabilities walk closely with God because they need to rely on the Lord to endure their challenges in life far more than others of us. In their moments of physical pain, frustration, and isolation, they learn how to look to God and find Him ready to receive them in their disability.
Fourth, people with disabilities are uniquely gifted and can minister to others in amazing ways. In fact, they can minister as effectively, if not more so than their sisters and brothers in Christ who do not have disabilities. Their physical or mental disability, in God’s hands, becomes a ministry blessing. This brings new insight to Paul’s challenge that all believers in the body of Christ have gifts that the Church needs (1 Pet. 4:10). He was not excluding people with disabilities.
Fifth, from an outreach perspective, people with disabilities have incomparable ability to reach disability communities with the Gospel and disciple them. The rest of us may not know how to enter a specific disability culture. What is more, we may not feel welcome. At first blush, this may sound exclusive or prejudiced. But years of being excluded from activities, organizations, even families, have left people with disabilities feeling pushed out. This is one reason why people with disabilities form their own communities.
Disability communities welcome disabled people with open arms whereas the non-disabled often do not. This may not be intentional; but intention matters little to those who are socially isolated. Regardless, people with disabilities will often evangelize and help other people with disabilities to grow spiritually with greater lasting impact than the non-disabled population. More often than not, the non-disabled population doesn’t even seem to care. But there are wonderful exceptions.
Disability entered the world with sin and suffering in the Garden of Eden. But God in His good pleasure holds disability like a tool in His mighty hands to shape men and women into the image of Christ. If we are bold enough to ask why God gave us, all of us, disability to deal with, we will have to acknowledge that He uses it in our lives in many ways. Through it, we grow as individuals and churches. We will also recognize that it is one more way that God brings glory to Himself.
Correct Errors About Disability
God’s people often hold and spread wrong ideas about disability that we should address directly. In His Word, God dispels three common myths regarding people with disabilities:
Myth #1: God does not love people with disabilities. This notion is a carryover from pagan beliefs. But the Bible makes it clear that a disability is not God’s disapproval or punishment upon individ- uals who are disabled. He allows disabilities for His intended purposes: to bring glory to Himself, spiritual growth in people with disabilities, and ministry opportunities and blessings for believers who serve people with disabilities.
Myth #2: People with disabilities or their parents sinned against God. A second wrong idea about the cause of disabilities is seen when someone asked Jesus whether it was the man born blind or his parents who had sinned. Jesus responded “neither” and explained that this man’s blindness existed “in order that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1–3).
Jesus’ point is clear: the disability existed so that he might heal this man. While this is a specific instance, a general principle lies behind it. God allows some people and not others to be disabled in order to accomplish His purposes.
Myth #3: People with disabilities lack the faith to be healed. Some people believe that if a person has enough faith, they will be healed. This is nowhere taught in the Bible, but is based on a misun- derstanding of Matthew 17:20 where nothing is impossible with faith.
The clear teaching of the Bible is that we must pray as those who submit our wills to God—if it is God’s will, he certainly can heal a person’s disability. That happened during Jesus’ earthly min- istry and on a few other occasions in the Old Testament and the early church. Most would agree it could happen today. But it has always been done for the glory of God, and often for the growth of the individual.
Many people with disabilities have great faith and live victorious Christian lives. In fact, their faith may be stronger than the average able-bodied or able-minded believer because of the disabil- ity.” (David C. Deuel, “God’s Story of Disability: The Unfolding Plan from Genesis to Revelation,” Journal of the Christian Institute for Disability 3:1 [2013, forthcoming]).
Shepherd People With Disabilities Biblically
How can we serve people with disabilities? God’s story in Scripture is about His mission on earth. Our mission, which must be consistent with His, should begin with evangelizing and discipling people with disabilities (Matt. 28:18–20). This two-stage process should always be our first priority.
First, evangelize people with disabilities (Matt. 28:18–20). We must consider how to lead people with disabilities to Christ. We must not place conditions on our love for persons with disabilities. This is all too easy to do. For example, we must not lead an unbelieving person with a disability to think that we will not care about them unless they become a Christian. This is manipulation and it is wrong. What is more, reaching some disability groups with the Gospel will require additional commitment and care.
Second, disciple and train people with disabilities (Eph. 4:11–13). People with disabilities need to be in Jesus’ church learning and growing. Compassionate treatment and mercy ministry should be woven into the fabric of every thought and deed pertaining to disability, not treated as an addi- tional component of disability ministry, or (even worse), pitted against evangelism and discipleship.
For example, well-intentioned Christians can become so consumed with a person’s disabling condition that they neglect the person’s spiritual condition. One’s spiritual condition must always be our greatest concern—although not necessarily our first in treatment—because it is anyone’s greatest need. We evangelize and disciple people with disabilities because that is how we best love them or anyone for that matter.
It is critical that we help the person with a disability grow spiritually in the best way possible. We must not cause the person with a disability who claims to be a Christian to think that unless they grow spiritually in conduct, we will treat them like a child by punishing them or ignoring them.
Third, ensure that people with disabilities worship, fellowship, and serve in the local church (Phil. 2:1–3). We must provide opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of church life. We will fellowship with them, participate in practicing the “one anothers” with them. They must also be enabled to engage fully in worship. What is more, they must exercise the spiritual gifts each one has (1 Pet. 4:10) to serve in our churches.
Once we have prioritized spiritual matters, we also must address what might prevent someone with a disability from participating in the Christian life. How possibly can we help the person with a disability respond to God’s Word when the disability prevents that person from responding?
By prioritizing spiritual needs but not neglecting physical and cognitive needs, Jesus exemplifies our role with persons with disabilities. What is more, the deacons in the early church serve as mod- els for the role of all believers in assisting others. With great confidence that God can use us, and these godly examples, we should consider our mission.
In short, we must see to it that every aspect of the local church experience is realized in the lives of people with disabilities. In Jesus’ words, we must invite them to our banquet, after which we can expect Jesus’ promised outcome: we (all) will be blessed (Luke 14:14). Indeed, we are blessed to have people with disabilities in our individual and collective Christian experience.
The Bible, by treating people with disabilities as part of the assembly in the OT and the Church in the NT, shows us clearly that people with disabilities are just that. They are people who happen, by God’s sovereign plan, to have disabilities. They are not another category of person, but have varying capacities, gifts, and talents, just like those who do not have disabilities.
Most people with disabilities hope that their local church will provide two things: access to the church facility and acceptance from the church’s people, their brothers and sisters in Christ. Isn’t this what all people want from church? If we are obedient to biblical teaching on disabilities, we will treat all people as one of us, and give a little assistance to others where it is needed.
As a shepherd, lead your sheep as a flock. Don’t allow the lambs with disabilities to linger far behind for the wolves or starvation. Some may require a little more attention. But they will also contribute significantly to the health, general well-being, and especially, the spiritual growth of the flock.
Throughout Jesus’ brief three-year earthly mission, He encountered many people with disabili- ties. His response? Jesus ministered to people with disabilities as if they were at the top of his priority list. Should not we as his under-shepherds do the likewise?
Portions of this study are excerpted from, Dave Deuel, “God’s Story of Disability: The Unfolding Plan from Genesis to Revelation,” The Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID) Vol.2, No.2, Fall/Winter 2013.